It’s hard to believe now that there was ever any doubt that Rihanna would become the musical icon that she is today. With 14 number ones on the Billboard Hot 100, she is just four shy of Mariah Carey’s record. However, in 2007 Rihanna’s position in pop was uncertain. Her debut, ‘Music of the Sun’, had only produced one hit and, whilst ‘A Girl Like Me’ was a commercial success, Rihanna was still yet to prove that she could rise to the legendary status of pop’s biggest stars.
Ten years ago, Robyn Rihanna Fenty made that bold declaration to PAPER. “I want to be the black Madonna.” In doing so, the Bad Gal had already set the wheels in motion for accomplishing that aspiration — in spirit of the Material Girl, she got the critics talking. There’s been a running list of pop acts prior to (and after) Rihanna’s revelation who’ve expressed a desire to match Madge. But Rihanna’s claim in particular held more conviction, as it was already on its way to becoming a reality.
Meanwhile, other promising and established black female artists were struggling to gain and/or maintain chart success. R&B was quickly losing mainstream popularity and with it many of the black singers who helmed the genre or were lazily associated with it. What could Rihanna do to break the curse? Cue: ‘Umbrella’.
‘Umbrella’ was originally written in the hopes of being the lead single for Britney Spears’ ‘Blackout’ album. However, after her team rejected it, it was passed on to Taio Cruz before making its way to Rihanna. ‘When the demo first started playing, I was like, this is interesting, this is weird. But the song kept getting better. I listened to it over and over. I said, ‘I need this record. I want to record it tomorrow.’ The song’s writers, Tricky Stewart and The-Dream, had other ideas though. They hoped for an established artist to record the song: Mary J. Blige specifically. Nevertheless, Rihanna’s love of ‘Umbrella’ paid off. She persuaded her manager, LA Reid, to buy it and the rest is history.
It would have been easier for a then nineteen-year-old Rihanna to continue down the Janet Jackson lane of razor-sharp, step-by-perfect-step choreography combined with a sultrier sex appeal, as her often compared R&B contemporaries Beyoncé and Ciara have done. And there’s no denying the impact Ms. Janet-If-You’re-Nasty has made on the earlier sprinkles of Rihanna’s career — after all, Janet Jackson was one of the first torch bearers for black female empowerment in MTV era pop; an alternative on equal footing to Madonna. But Rihanna’s ambitious pining for a Madonna-level success required laser focus and unconventional risk taking.
In order for one to accomplish being a Madonna, she has to be a Queen of Pop, matching the original’s sales and records. She has to understand the importance of evolving musically and aesthetically with each project — and even those changes need to be clearly distinct, generate conversations about society’s latest taboos, and read as authentic. A Madonna has to assume the role of a commander standing at the frontlines for womanhood and the controversial complexities of human sexuality, despite the inevitable backlash to ensue. She has to be a trend-setter and muse for producers and songwriters, fashion designers and Hollywood directors alike. She has to be outspoken with her best intentions at heart, and every time she speaks everyone has to pay attention (even if they dislike what she says or don’t want to acknowledge it). Most importantly, a Madonna has to be a role model — especially when nobody, even herself, would actually think to describe her as one.
In 2007 ‘Umbrella’ spent seven consecutive weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100 and ten as the UK’s number one single. It won a Grammy Award for the Best Rap/Sung collaboration and an MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year. It was, and still is, one of Rihanna’s biggest hits to date.
Countless details make ‘Umbrella’ so brilliant. The distorted bass line that elevates the song from potential balladry, the fusion of genres (pop, R&B, hip-hop, rap) that makes it have such a mass appeal, the ‘ella, ella’ hook that embeds itself immediately within your brain. The middle eight. Above all these, however, is the song’s confidence. It opens with a verse from JAY Z, one of the most successful rappers in history, only to have him vanish thereafter. It was bigger than Rihanna at the time and yet she still decided to record it. It’s called ‘Umbrella’ and it was released just before summer (a summer in which national newspapers blamed UK flooding on the success of ‘Umbrella’ – amazing). Also, outside of the song itself, Rihanna was beginning to declare and make known her own confidence as a popstar. ‘Umbrella’ came with a new look for the ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’ era – an asymmetric bob that exudes confidence in and of itself. Half of Rihanna’s face is covered and yet you can still recognise her in a heartbeat. Also the video. So much of it is just Rihanna alone and yet she commands your attention in every part of it: on point as a ballerina, nude in silver paint, at ease performing choreography. Rihanna isn’t a natural dancer per say but for ‘Umbrella’ she learned a routine and served it, all in the name of pop. Part of the reason why Rihanna makes pop so interesting is because she is ambitious and she works hard to best herself. This couldn’t be more evident than in ‘Umbrella’. In it she’s pushing herself and pop with her.
‘Umbrella’ also testifies to the fact that Rihanna has one of the best ears in music. Throughout her career she has always had an amazing sense of what is a hit. ‘Umbrella’, ‘Rude Boy’, ‘What’s My Name’, ‘We Found Love’, ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Work’ are not just some of the biggest singles in her discography but they are also some of the biggest singles of all time. Critics have often dismissed Rihanna’s musicality – they have slated her vocal limitations and written her off as a vessel for pop writers – but in doing so, they have ignored the fact that Rihanna is not just a hit making machine but the brain and the talent behind it. She chose to embrace pop knowing that it would help make her successful and give her the freedom that she has now to not only experiment with the genre but lead it, all while honing her abilities as a singer and performer. Plus her tone is so distinctive that it upgrades all of the songs in her repertoire. The ‘ella, ella’ hook of ‘Umbrella’ is so magical because of the way that she performs it. In fact, it was Rihanna’s delivery of the ‘ella, ella’ hook that persuaded Tricky Stewart that she was the right fit for ‘Umbrella’. Rihanna doesn’t just sing hits that are written for her, she turns songs into hits by singing them. She has pop’s Midas touch.
In 2017, it is probably unlikely that ‘Umbrella’ is your favourite Rihanna single. Today there are so many brilliant ones to choose from. However, ‘Umbrella’ will always be the song that managed to cement Rihanna’s superstar status. It will always be the song that turned Rihanna into a household name. It will always be the song that acted as a statement that Robyn Rihanna Fenty was going nowhere. Ten years on and she’s still here.